Reclaiming congressional power of the purse

The initiative in Congress to reallocate confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) lodged in civilian offices to agencies tasked to protect the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) from Chinese aggression is praiseworthy.

For one, it’s a demonstration of the majority legislators’ sense of patriotism, which, hopefully, will rub off on other senators and congressmen, as well as on heads of the civilian agencies from which the CIF will be taken.

Also, it will realign budget allocation to prioritize agencies primarily tasked with surveillance or intelligence-gathering over civilian agencies whose functions mainly involve delivering basic public services. It will do away with duplication of functions and may prevent wastage of scarce public funds.

Equally important is the message it sends to the executive department: Congress is reclaiming its power of the purse, which it has long abdicated by approving the annual budget proposals from Malacañang with very few changes, sometimes with token cuts and more often to provide funds for the legislators’ pet projects.

However, many things can still happen within the three months — from October to December — that Congress is supposed to scrutinize the proposed 2024 national budget amounting to P5.768 trillion, which includes P10.14 billion in confidential and intelligence funds tucked into the budgets of various agencies.

Malacañang’s proposed 2024 spending program uploaded on the website of the Department of Budget and Management showed that P5.27 billion is earmarked for intelligence expenses and P4.86 billion for confidential expenses.

The bulk of the funds, or P4.5 billion, is lodged with the Office of the President (OP). President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is requesting an additional P50 million for the Department of Agriculture, which he concurrently heads.

Vice President Sara Duterte, on the other hand, is requesting P500 million for the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and P150 million for the Department of Education (DepEd), which she concurrently leads.

The Chinese coast guard’s intrusion in Scarborough Shoal came at a time when the vice president had drawn public criticism for spending P125 million in confidential funds in the last 11 days of 2022. Her critics in Congress pointed out that the OVP was not provided with such an allocation under the 2022 General Appropriations Act. Some also questioned the transfer of P221 million, which included the P125 million in confidential funds, from the contingent fund of the Office of the President.

It served as an opportune time for allies of Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez to jump on the bandwagon to strip Duterte of lump sum funds that she could spend with “flexibility” to borrow her word. They said the reallocation was necessary amid “rising security threats” in the WPS.

Romualdez and Duterte have been touted as the main contenders for the presidency in 2028.

Citing fresh incidents of China’s aggression, including the Chinese coast guard’s installation of physical barriers to prevent Filipino fishermen from entering the inner lagoon on Scarborough Shoal, party leaders at the House issued a collective statement, saying they want the CIFs to go to the agencies “chiefly responsible for intelligence and surveillance.”

Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc, is a triangular-shaped chain of reefs and rocks around a 150-kilometer-wide lagoon, 220 km from Masinloc, which is well within the 200-nautical mile (370 km) Philippine exclusive economic zone. It is 472 nautical miles or about 874 km from the nearest coast of China.

China calls it Huangyan Dao and lays claim to it purportedly based on historical rights.

The lawmakers mentioned the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, National Security Council, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources as the main beneficiaries of the proposed reallocation and the OVP and DepEd as the civilian agencies from which the funds would be taken.

They said the proposed recipient agencies are “better positioned to counteract security threats, protect our territorial waters, and secure the rights and access of Filipino fishermen to traditional fishing grounds” than the civilian offices requesting big CIF amounts.

Those who signed the joint statement were Rizal Rep. Michael John Duavit, president of the Nationalist People’s Coalition; Agusan del Norte Rep. Jose “Joboy” Aquino 2nd, Lakas-CMD secretary general; Romblon Rep. Eleandro Jesus “Budoy” Madrona of the Nacionalista Party; Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) vice president for Mindanao; Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte, National Unity Party president; and BHW party-list Rep. Angelica Natasha Co of the Coalition Foundation Inc.

Without mentioning any support for Romualdez, the party leaders, who occupy ranking positions at the House, said they view China’s latest action in the disputed waters “with serious concern,” adding that the floating barrier — which has since been removed by the Philippine Coast Guard — not only endangers Filipino fishermen and halt their livelihood but also triggers more conflict.

The House of Representatives voted 296-3 on Wednesday night, Sept. 27, to approve on third and final reading House Bill 8980, or the proposed General Appropriations Act of 2024. No amendments were introduced in the plenary, but a four-member committee (Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Elizaldy Co, appropriations committee chairman, with Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, House Majority Leader Manuel Jose Dalipe, and House Minority Leader Marcelino Libanan) was tasked to receive and resolve all proposed amendments to the government spending plan.

The Senate has wrapped up committee hearings on the budget proposals of the various agencies and is expected to begin plenary debates after it resumes sessions on Nov. 6.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri has said the senators have agreed to adopt the initiative at the House to reallocate what he termed as funds “not necessary for the use of certain agencies” and give those instead to the intelligence community, specifically the PCG and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Hopefully, Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, will no longer be confused in asserting Congress’ power of the purse.

During a committee hearing on the OVP’s budget on Sept. 6, Angara uttered: “Does Congress still have the power of the purse? I’m not so sure. Anyway, that’s a separate debate.”

Angara said it after Duterte told the committee: “The OVP can only propose the use of confidential funds … but we leave it to the decision and discretion of the members of Congress who [have] the power of the purse to decide whether to grant confidential funds to our office. We can only propose, but we are not insisting. We can live without confidential funds, but of course, our work will be much easier if we have the flexibility of confidential funds in monitoring the safe, secure and successful implementations of the programs, projects and activities of the [OVP].”


The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.